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Revenge Spending: Why It Happens and How to Turn Things Around

Jackie Lam | Apr 2, 2019

That motorcycle you buy — without first telling your partner: Sure, it’s a major purchase that should require discussion beforehand, but they did go on that weekend bender last month. You deserve your own rebelle sojourn, whooshing down Pacific Coast Highway, hair and heart ablaze in your BMW R1200RT. And that pair of very high-fashion Saint Laurent boots? Your partner did just spend a sizable sum on the joint credit card. The calfskin leather wrapped just-right around your ankles is more than justified.

This isn’t just blowing off steam. This is revenge spending, which is an emotional reaction to how your spouse or partner spends money, explains Laura Coleman, a financial coach and founder of Family Money Coaching. “You do it to get even. You spent X; I spent X, even if it means damaging [our] personal finances and going deeper in debt,” she adds. Here’s the typical scenario: Your partner blows a wad of cash without telling you. Or they do something extremely hurtful that leaves you angry or betrayed. Consumed by a swell of resentment, you retaliate by way of the dollar. For instance, your partner spends $1,000 without running it by you. Then you spend an equally sizable sum on music festival tickets for you and your three closest friends.

Like all forms of revenge, this can escalate in volatile rounds of back-and-forth splurges and financial secrets. It turns out that almost one-fifth of adults who are in live-in partnerships are hiding a credit card, checking, or savings account from their S.O., according to CreditCards.com’s 2019 financial infidelity poll. Be aware: 20 percent of respondents feel financial infidelity is worse than cheating sexually. You might start to bicker, or stonewall each other completely. Not only can revenge spending do severe damage to your relationship, it can spiral into massive debt. If you and your partner are wading knee-deep in revenge spending carnage, here are a few tips on how to break the cycle and rebuild your relationship.

Get to the root

There can be a number of reasons why revenge spending occurs in the first place.

Maybe your significant other did something that upset you in a major way. Or it might be that your needs aren’t getting fulfilled. Perhaps your partner’s work is their mistress, and you’re feeling bereft of quality time spent together.

“The important thing is to understand why someone would do that,” explains Coleman. “Why did you spend that money? What made you think you had the right to spend that money?” Whatever the case might be, you’ll need to figure out the root cause. While it might feel like the other person started the vicious cycle, you’ll need to take a step back and figure out what really happened. It’s only then that you can work on breaking these destructive patterns.

Assess the severity

There are different degrees of revenge spending. And it doesn’t matter if you’re blowing $20,000 on a new car or $50 on a pair of boots. What’s important is the intent behind the spending.

How can you undo the financial damage? To start, Coleman recommends ordering a credit report. (You can get one per year from each of the major credit bureaus — Experian, Transunion, and Equifax — at AnnualCreditReport.com.)

“You’ll want to check all accounts, including separate and joint ones, to make sure you’re open with your debt, and know exactly how much you owe,” says Coleman. That means thoroughly combing over bank and credit card statements to see exactly what went down. And once you tally up any debt, you’ll need to come up with a game plan to pay it off. Who will be held responsible for bearing the burden, or will you split it up? “Even if the other person was the one who spent the money, you need to work together to get out of the mess as a team,” says Coleman. “Judgment and blame need to take a backseat. You need to eventually stop pointing fingers. Instead, work together as a team to communicate in a positive way. “It’s now our problem, and we’re going to work together to solve it, “ says Coleman. “You need to own your actions, and rebuild your savings account or pay off debt and set mutual goals.” It might seem like you’re trying to achieve the impossible, but try to get to the point where you’re transparent about your financial matters. Maybe each person has online access to all your accounts. Or set alerts so you both are pinged when either partner spends more than X on joint credit accounts.

Create a spending plan

Revenge spending might happen simply because you and your partner never created a budget together or ground rules for your purchases, explains Coleman. “The couple simply isn’t communicating what their expenses are, or they don’t have any personal money set aside,” she says. And they might’ve bought something with zero intention of irritating you. But in your mind, they should’ve asked you first.

That disconnect in expectations can be avoided by devising a budget and coming up with basic limits and boundaries. For instance, for purchases over X, you should run it by one another before hitting the “buy” button. You might also create separate spending accounts so you have freedom to buy whatever you please. Your joint account can be used to tend to your bills and for shared goals, like saving for trips, a down payment on house or car, and so forth.

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Go on money dates

No, this doesn’t mean going on shopping sprees together. You’ll want to block out time in your respective schedules for a proper sit-down to review and discuss your finances. “Come prepared to discuss without judgment,” says Coleman. “You might have different money personalities. Maybe you’re a saver, and your partner is a spender. Understand your spouse and what their needs are, and define what is ‘enough.’” If you’re a hardcore saver, you might want to have as much money as possible saved up for emergencies. Your spendthrift partner, on the other hand, might want to have a thinner cushion so that more money can be spent on clothes, travel, and what have you. Seek that balance.

Strangely, sex and politics are typically easier subjects to tackle than chatting about our finances. But it’s obvious that not talking about money matters could lead to serious problems down the line. “Talking about money can be stressful, so try to make it fun,” says Coleman. Schedule a date at an indoor trampoline park or discuss during a nice meal out.

Work the “magic ratio” to heal wounds

When there’s conflict in relationships, studies published by The Gottman Institute, on the difference between happy and unhappy couples reveal there’s a specific ratio of negative and positive interactions for the partnership to have staying power. For every negative interaction, there should be five positive interactions for a lasting relationship. Negative interactions could be acting dismissive, resentful, or critical. Positive interactions could be an expression of affection and appreciation and showing genuine interest in your partner.

So if you blew a wad of cash behind your partner’s back, improve your communication and commit acts of generosity and gratitude, recommends Coleman. “By focusing on the positive, it shows you value your partner; and, in turn will strengthen your relationship.” Cook a fancy dinner. Tend to yours kids one evening out of the week so they can have a night off. Spend some quality time together. Or say it out loud and to their face just how much you value them. Of course, if you’re feeling deep-ill feelings of anger, resentment, or betrayal, getting back to a place of positive interactions will take time and work. And you might have different needs and time frames to get you back in a place of positive interaction. “If you want to save your [relationship], you’re going to have to change your behaviors,” says Coleman. “You want to stop blaming them so you can turn things around and rebuild the partnership.” Revenge spending starts as a passive-aggressive act of retaliation. But it doesn’t have to balloon into splitsville and financial ruin. By addressing the issue and doing the hard work to repair your partnership, you can heal wounds and potentially turn things around.